Roberto Clemente’s legacy as one of baseball’s greatest players is matched only by the memory of the selfless sacrifice he made trying to help others in need.
The son of a sugar cane worker in Puerto Rico, Clemente showed athletic promise at an early age, joining the Puerto Rican amateur league in 1952 at the age of 16 and signing a minor league contract with a Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate two years later. In July 1954, Clemente’s first home run in North America resulted in an extra-innings walk-off win for the triple-A Montreal Royals.
Later that year, the Pittsburgh Pirates made Clemente its first selection of the rookie draft. As a Pirate, Clemente would go on to win 12 Gold Gloves (tied for most among outfielders), four National League batting titles, two World Series rings, and the World Series MVP for 1971. He had a batting average of over .300 for 13 seasons and is credited with professional baseball’s only inside the park, walk-off grand slam.
He recorded his 3,000th and last hit during the final regular season at-bat of his career in 1972.
Hall of Fame numbers, for certain. But it’s also for Clemente’s humanitarian efforts that Google, in the spirit of Hispanic Heritage Month, dedicated its Doodle on Friday to the first Latin American player enshrined in Cooperstown.
Clemente spent much of his off-season involved in charity work, delivering baseball equipment and food to those in need in Latin American and Caribbean countries. After a 6.3 earthquake killed thousands and caused widespread damage to Nicaragua on Dec. 23, 1972, Clemente began arranging emergency relief flights to deliver aid to survivors.
After learning that the aid packages were being diverted by corrupt government officials, Clemente decided to accompany a New Year’s Eve flight to ensure the supplies were delivered to earthquake victims. But the plane, with a history of mechanical problems and overloaded by more than two tons, suffered an engine failure and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean immediately after takeoff.
The body of the pilot was found a few days after the crash, but the bodies of Clemente and three others who were on the DC-7 were never recovered. He was 38.
The next March, the Hall of Fame waived its candidate waiting period for Clemente, and he was posthumously inducted into Cooperstown with 393 out of 420 available votes.
In a sad footnote in the life of a brilliant baseball player and selfless humanitarian, Clemente was referred to as “Bob Clemente” by sports writers, announcers and even on his baseball cards for much of his MLB career, despite his clear preference to be called by his given first name.
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